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There are more than 5,000 male professional footballers in the UK. Not one of them is openly gay.

One of the many reasons why not a single professional footballer is out could be down to the fact that the sport is highly associated with homophobia, particularly from fans attending matches.

Homophobia is still hugely prevalent in the game. In fact, a survey by Stonewall found that 72% of fans had heard homophobic abuse from other fans during a game.
The same survey also found that one in five 18 to 24-year-olds admitted they would be embarrassed if their favorite player was to come out, with Stonewall’s Chief Executive, Ruth Hall, saying in 2016 that “there is a persistent minority who believe this sort of abuse is acceptable.”

At a time where many other sportspersons, such as rugby player Gareth Thomas, diver Tom Daley, and mixed martial artist Jéssica Andrade, can be out and remain respected in their field of sports, why does it seem so difficult for football to keep up with the times?

The UK’s track record with professional LGBTQ players in football isn’t great. In 1990, Justin Fashanu became the world’s first openly gay professional footballer. He was faced with homophobic comments from his coaches, while fans would chant abuse during matches. In 1998, he committed suicide.

In October 2015, The Mirror newspaper published a front-page headline which stated the two Premier League footballers were ready to come out. Despite talking about the “footballer’s courage,” they sensationalized the decision as if it were an expose. This kind of behavior from the media only helps to add extreme pressure on those in football that may be considering coming out.

In its current position, football is still seen as a masculine game – perhaps the core reason for a lack of LGBTQ professionals. David Mooney, a gay football fan and host of The Blue Moon Podcast, believes there is an issue with gender identity in football, stating that “being gay is often associated with being feminine and that is still viewed as a weakness by many” and that he himself had been surrounded by homophobic comments. In a locker-room, the players were overheard saying that “only fucking queers want to shower with other men.”

Steps are being made to actively tackle homophobia in the sport, albeit very slowly. In 2013, Kick It Out, football's equality and inclusion organization, launched a smartphone app allowing fans to report any discriminatory abuse. During 2015/16, 68 incidents of discrimination towards sexual orientation were reported.

Di Cunningham, the chair of the Pride In Football alliance, believes that it’s been up to LGBTQ fans themselves to tackle the homophobia and lack of inclusion within the sport, stating that “by forming groups like Gay Gooners, Proud Canaries, and Canal Street Blues, we’ve achieved a visibility that seems to be helping change behavior as fans and stewards realize there are LGBTQ people in the stands.”

A report by the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee found that the sport, in general, is not doing enough to tackle homophobic abuse, singling football out for having an out-of-step attitude towards homophobia.

Damian Collins MP, Chair of the Committee, stated that sports authorities need to adopt “a zero-tolerance approach to the use of all homophobic language and behaviors must be implemented with standardized sanctions across all sports.”

One concern that may be shying professional LGBTQ footballers from coming out is the risk of losing out on corporate sponsorships once out. More needs to be done to highlight the duty of care sponsors should have in reassuring players they will be protected, with the Committee report stating that “major sponsors should come together to launch an initiative in the UK to make clear that, should any sportsperson wish to come out, they will have their support.”

Just recently, two Leicester fans at a game against Bolton were arrested for homophobic chants. Supporters were seen to be chanting homophobic abuse and making homophobic gestures. A spokesman for Leicester City told The Guardian that “everyone is free to enjoy the matchday experience” and that they are committed to creating a passionate, inclusive, and welcoming environment for all.

So, what needs to be done to tackle football’s disturbing relationship with homophobia? It all starts with the governing bodies, those with the power and authority. Di Cunningham believes that, to become fully inclusive, “we need the game’s authorities to insist that all clubs ensure a systematic approach to ride the terraces of hate and prejudice” through correct policies and procedures.

The 1991 Football Offences Act forbids indecent or racist chanting at football matches. This act needs to be amended to include the use of homophobic abuse and have a severe penalty, such as banning orders, to those who continue to discriminate.

Since 2015, FIFA, the international governing body of football, has implemented an Anti-Discrimination Monitoring system which observes and reports on all 871 matches of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers. Through this system, various Member Associations have already been sanctioned by FIFA due to homophobic chants. FIFA has worked closely with these associations to develop measures which address these incidents.

Speaking to INTO, FIFA’s Head of Sustainability & Diversity, Federico Addiechi said that:

Over the past two years, we strengthened and expanded our work to fight discrimination and promote diversity in football. As a result, we have seen many positive responses and efforts from our Member Associations to tackle issues such as racism and homophobia in football and inside stadiums. For FIFA and football globally, this is a very encouraging development which confirms we are on the right track and motivates us to resolutely continue this fight.

Circling back to the Stonewall report, it’s positive to also see that 88% of fans would be either “proud” or “neutral” if their favorite player came out as gay. The research by the charity also found that 59% of those surveyed agreed that offensive language towards LGBTQ people in the sport is a problem.

It’s clear to see that changes within football are happening. The sport is clearly open to becoming more inclusive, but it’s still quite a while away. 

Governing bodies, players, and clubs need to work closely with the numerous support groups and charities out there, such as Football V Homophobia and Pride In Football, to create a truly inclusive and safe place for all players and all fans – whether they are members of the LGBTQ community or not.